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The First Ghetto of the Holocaust!

Piotrkow Trybunalski

Piotrkow Trybunalski

The First Ghetto in Occupied Poland





Artist rendering of the square in Piotrkow Trybunalski

Piotrkow Trybunalski is a town in central Poland about 26 kilometres south of Lodz, it is one of Poland’s oldest cities.


Piotrkow was part of Russia between 1815 until 1915, before reverting back to Poland in 1919, it was an important industrial centre, principally for the manufacture of textiles, wood and glass products.


Jews had lived in Piotrkow since the early Middle- Ages and by 1939, numbered some 15,000 residents.  This was approximately twenty seven percent of the total population.


The thriving Jewish community, both secular and Orthodox, supported three weekly newspapers, as well as a number of religious, cultural and political organisations and institutions.


There were numerous synagogues and prayer houses in the town, with the Great Synagogue considered one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind throughout Poland.


Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, more than 1,000 Jews were killed on 4 September in bombing raids on the nearby village of Sulejow, where they had fled before the advancing German army.


After some initial bombing and shelling, Piotrkow was occupied on 5 September 1939, the persecution of the Jewish residents began immediately.


Jewish men were seized in the streets for slave labour, beatings and random killings became commonplace. Although approximately 2,000 Jews had managed to escape from the town to the Soviet-occupied zone during the initial days of the occupation, throughout 1939 and 1940 the population was enlarged by Jews from the neighbouring towns and cities, including Warsaw, Lodz, Belchatow, Kalisz, Gniezno and Plock.


Map showing Piotrkow Trybunalski

As was commonplace a 24 strong Judenrat was established in the early days of the occupation, headed by Zalmen Tennenbaum, a former Vice-President of the pre-war Jewish Council.


Zalmen Tennenbaum was also appointed President of all Judenrat within Piotrkow county. In October 1939 the German army transferred the administration of the city to the civilian authorities under the command of Oberburgmeister Hans Drexel, who on the 8 October 1939 issued a decree establishing a ghetto for Jews -this was the first ghetto in occupied Poland.


As in other ghettos the living conditions were appalling, 5,000 – 6,000 people had lived in this area before the war, now 28,000 were incarcerated there. Many houses had no electricity, water supply or basic facilities, the ghetto was closed on 28 October 1939. Hanka Ziegler was 9-years old when the Second World War began, her parents and their five children lived in Lodz but moved to Piotrkow in the early days of the war and she recalled:

“We all stayed in one little room, the seven of us. Another fourteen people came to the room at different times. I remember sleeping on a chair with one of my brothers, it was awful. My father got caught foraging for food and was put in prison – I never saw my father again. My brother Zigmund and I were the breadwinners – he was about fourteen.


We collected all the food – he and I started selling bread and potatoes – we didn’t have anything else to sell. And then we started scavenging and begging from non-Jewish people. Being such small children we could get through any hole – we learned how to steal, how to beg. My mother was unable to do anything – she just couldn’t cope. We were very hungry – so we went out of the ghetto – we went backwards and forwards – then the day came when they sealed the ghetto.”


Many of the Jews were employed at the Hortensja Glassworks, which mainly produced jars and bottles, at the Kara factory, which manufactured plate glass, or the Bugaj Wood factory. Another Piotrkow survivor Ben Helfgott recalled:


“Young people suffered – from fifteen onwards, they could not walk in the streets for fear of being taken for forced labour. In mid-1940 200-250 were rounded up and taken to build fortifications on the River Bug. There was no real rule that anyone that went out of the ghetto would be shot. Some would be shot, some would be beaten. Our nights weren’t safe either- the police would knock on the doors at night to round up young people to be taken away for forced labour.”


Hortensja Glassworks Logo

On 29 November 1939, Drexel presented the Judenrat with a decree signed by Governor Hans Frank stating that a “fine” of 350,000 zlotys had been imposed on the Jewish community of Piotrkow. To ensure payment the Germans seized three hostages, who were beaten so badly that one of them, Leib Dessau died. The “fine” was paid, as was a subsequent demand for more money.


In addition to the money 12,000 eggs, 500 sacks of flour, 300kg of butter and 100 sacks of sugar were all demanded by the Nazi authorities – this kind of naked extortion was typical of what communities had to endure throughout occupied Poland. In July 1940, Jews were taken from Piotrkow to two nearby swamps, where they were forced to dig ditches and canals. They were forced to work naked, standing in water up to their waists. Many died of tuberculosis or pneumonia. Some were only 12 years old.


Between June and July 1941, the Germans uncovered the existence of a Jewish underground movement in the ghetto, eleven members of the Judenrat, which had been cooperating with the underground were arrested, amongst this number was the President Zalmen Tennenbaum.


After more than two months of interrogation and torture, all of those arrested were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp on 13 September 1941. A few days later, the families of those taken to Auschwitz were informed of their deaths “due to illness.” Szymon Warszawski was appointed as the new head of the Judenrat to replace Zalmen Tennenbaum.


Rumours concerning the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe circulated within the ghetto. Charles Kotkowsky marching daily to the Hortensja Glassworks, was befriended by a guard Waclaw Bordo, who one day in spring 1942 passed to him a copy of the Underground socialist newspaper Robotnik (Worker).


Read more here: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/nazioccupation/piotrkow.html

The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team




Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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